Milk

It is three days after Penelope’s birth, and we are home in our apartment for the first time. I am hiding in our bedroom alone, stuffing fistfuls of the white down comforter into my mouth, my whole body shaking violently with sobs. I feel myself breaking, cracking open. Out in the living room my mother-in-law rocks my tiny, wailing baby. My husband scurries back and forth between us both. I cry, and cry, and cry. My daughter is starving.

***

When filling out the paperwork for daycare, I have to write in that Penny is “combination-fed” both breastmilk and formula. I try not to die inside. Why won’t my body do what it was biologically designed to do?

***

We overslept and we are rushing. Penny plays on the floor while David and I swoop around getting things ready so he doesn’t miss the bus. I open the fridge. “Where’s the breastmilk?” I say. Yesterday I pumped a record 7 oz total over three pumping sessions at work. It’s the most milk I’ve ever pumped in one day, and I am damn proud. “What?” says David, pausing in the kitchen. “The breastmilk,” I say, panicking now. “Didn’t you bring it up from the car yesterday?” He had. And there it is, sitting in the lunch bag on the kitchen counter. Neither of us remembered to stick it in the fridge and now, fourteen hours later, we are paying for it. Spoiled. It is no one’s fault. It just is. David holds me in the kitchen while I blink back vicious tears. It takes every bit of strength I possess not to apologize to my daughter as I kiss her goodbye. After she and my husband leave I collapse on the floor, sobbing. I can’t bring myself to pour it down the drain so I leave the bottles on the counter where I found them. I go to work. Start again.

***

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I had planned to breastfeed from the moment I got pregnant, but I wasn’t looking forward to it. I have always been uncomfortable in my body, and breastfeeding frightened me. My husband tried to mitigate my discomfort by assuring me that breastfeeding was normal. “Well, I’ve never had milk come out of my boobs before,” I said tartly. “So it’s not normal for me.”

But when I saw her, when I held Penny in my arms for the first time all of that discomfort and apprehension melted away. Of course I was going to nurse my daughter. Of course.

It wasn’t that easy.

We struggled in the hospital. I expected there to be a learning curve when it came to breastfeeding. A learning curve for me, that is. I just assumed my baby would be born knowing how to breastfeed. It never occurred to me that she would be learning, too. We struggled with latching, positioning, getting Penny to swallow, keeping Penny awake long enough to nurse, waiting and waiting and waiting for my milk to come in. The nurses were all eager to help, but each one had different–often conflicting–advice, and we would inevitably reach a point in the process where the nurse would just grab my breast, place it in Penny’s mouth and hold it there, while stroking her throat with the other hand to get her to swallow. I felt invisible, detached, and so sad. One nurse dripped formula onto my nipple to try to get Penny interested enough to suck, because there was just no milk there. I was so empty and so far away.

Before we were discharged from the hospital the resident pediatrician instructed us to set up an appointment at the clinic for the following day rather than waiting for two week check up. “She’s looking just a little jaundiced,” he said.

The first night home was the worst night of my life. I did not know it was possible to feel as exhausted, as heartbroken, as ashamed as I felt when I could not feed my daughter.

Somehow we survived the night. At the pediatrician’s appointment the next morning, Penny was more that “just a little” jaundiced. She was fluorescent yellow down to the whites of her eyes and had lost 13% of her birthweight. We immediately went into crisis mode. Penny’s pediatrician, Mary Jane, is also a specialized lactation consultant, so she watched us nurse and then went to work. My left nipple was inverted, so we focused on that. Mary Jane showed me new holds, tips to get Penny to latch, and ways to make sure she swallowed. She got us an electric pump and instructed me to start pumping for a minimum of 15 minutes after every feed. And she gave us a supplemental nursing system.

An SNS is a thin, flexible tube that is taped to the nipple and attached to a bottle filled with formula. The idea is that the baby is still breastfeeding while simultaneously getting supplemental calories from the formula. My milk still wasn’t in, and if Penny didn’t begin gaining weight immediately she was going to be hospitalized. So we were sent home with the SNS and the pump and got to work.

The SNS was shoddy, a temporary device we were hoping to get rid of as soon as possible. Most of the time David held up the bottle for me, but on the rare occasion that he couldn’t there was a clip that would attach the bottle to the brim of a baseball hat. When David held it up for me it was easier to pretend that it wasn’t there. That my body wasn’t totally betraying me. But when wearing the baseball cap the bottle hung directly in my face, gently clunking my cheek whenever I moved, a tangible, forcible reminder of my failure. Wearing the SNS–which I did at every single feeding for the first two weeks, slowly dropping it one feed at a time for weeks afterward–filled me with shame. Fresh, undiluted shame. I wept through every feeding.

With the constant nursing and pumping, my nipples cracked. The pain was agonizing. I remember sitting on the couch after a feeding, slowly peeling the tape off my nipple while David sat beside me and held Penelope. The pain was so intense that my whole body shook as I grit my teeth and kept peeling. More painful, less purposeful than childbirth. Tears streamed down my face as I pulled and pulled and pulled. David cried watching me.

Penny had doctor appointments every day that first week, and weekly appointments for the first month. Little by little she gained weight, but never enough. It took her over a month to get back to her birthweight.

It rapidly became clear that exclusively breastfeeding my daughter was not going to be an option. She was always, always going to need formula. Especially because I couldn’t pump enough to sustain her when I returned to work.

I tried everything. We were skin to skin for the bulk of my maternity leave. I drink lactation teas, eat oatmeal every day, started taking fenugreek capsules, and have been taking a drug prescribed by the pediatrician to help increase milk production. I nurse Penny on demand: she eats whenever she wants for as long as she wants; we have never tried to cut her off or impose a schedule. I have pored over books and articles and forums. I have been to lactation consultants. If it has been suggested, I have tried it. And it hasn’t worked.

It hasn’t worked.

We dropped the SNS after a few months and switched to a bottle for Penny’s formula feeds. I couldn’t handle the tube anymore. At my insistence we never took a photo of me wearing that contraption while nursing, the dreaded bottle swaying horribly in front of my face. Now, though, I wish we had. I wish we had a photograph that I could pull out and shove in the face of everyone who thinks I didn’t try hard enough. “See, see?! I did everything I could.”

I am feeding my kid. What matters is that I am feeding my kid. She is getting food. It doesn’t matter where the food comes from. She is healthy. I am doing the best I can. This is what I tell myself over and over again. David is more worried about me than he is about Penelope. He wishes I didn’t take this so much to heart. He wishes I could see how much I am giving, and not view that as a failure. He wishes I could be proud of myself, the way he is so very proud of me. I wish all of that, too.

We are still nursing as often as we can, and I dream of making it to a full year although I’m currently setting my sights on six months, which is on our horizon. But until she transitions to an all-solid food diet Penny will always need formula to be healthy. I just cannot make enough for her. And it is devastating.

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drugs and herbs

About Kelly

Kelly grew up in the suburbs of Boston, mere minutes from the Atlantic ocean. For several years she lived in New York City where she found the two loves of her life: Publishing and David. She moved to the Twin Cities for her husband, and eventually managed to pick up the pieces of her career as well. Although she’s learning to appreciate lakes, she misses the ocean ferociously.

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11 Responses to Milk

  1. Heather Evans April 30, 2014 at 4:41 pm #

    You’re one damn strong woman for being so transparent with your vulnerabilities. That’s the only real strength there is.

  2. Kim April 30, 2014 at 4:49 pm #

    Oh, Kelly. I am so sorry!

    You’re right, though. What matters is that you’re feeding her. You’re giving her the nutrition she needs to grow. Blah blah “breast is best” but formula is good too. There are millions of formula fed babies who do wonderfully.

    Also, I totally relate to the breast milk left out overnight break down.

  3. Jill Williams April 30, 2014 at 4:57 pm #

    Oh Kelly, I wept as I read this. I truly feel your pain. I was never certain I would breast feed either but once I held RaeAnn in my arms I wanted nothing more & my body failed me too. My milk never came in with either of my children. With as much as we tried to nurse and pumping til I cried, with RaeAnn we lasted two weeks, with Jacob it was only a week. One lactation consultant had to excuse herself from the room she was so frustrated with RaeAnn and I. We had nipple shields and that SNS contraption, it was miserable. I almost didn’t even try with Jacob but it’s a mother’s intuition to give it an honest effort and I promised myself if my milk didn’t come in I wouldn’t feel as guilty I knew bottle feeding was OK…I still felt just as guilty :/
    The guilt is overwhelming when you aren’t able to breastfeed, and the shame when everyone around you seems to be a nursing pro and it stinks to have to defend giving formula to your baby, but snuggling up to bottle feed, free of stress can be just as rewarding and I certainly enjoyed being able to sleep through a midnight feeding or two since my husband could make the bottle!
    You are doing a great job Kelly, you are amazing for still giving breastfeeding everything you’ve got and making it to six months is a great accomplishment.

  4. Steph April 30, 2014 at 7:10 pm #

    Kelly, I can tell you that I truly, truly, truly know exactly how you feel. You just wrote about my experience with Tyler. I tried everything that was available. And I fought. But he gave up by 4 months old.
    It was a bit better with Brayden, but still pretty bad. At 2 weeks old, a new friend called me out of the blue and I started sobbing on the phone. Talk about embarrassing! She dropped everything and came over. She baked me cookies and she encouraged me. I started the RX again and I tried again and it worked enough for him to survive, though barely. At 9 months old, he was losing weight and I had to start part-supplementing. But I part nursed for a year!
    Kinley was easier. I knew better how to start on a system that would work. I started the RX as soon as I was allowed to drink anything after my c-section. My milk came in one day sooner, but it was still low. She had jaundice and so we had to part supplement to get her through it. After 2 weeks, I had her weaned off of the bottle, and though my production always stayed low and she always stayed small, we made it! We made it to a year.
    I was so scared before Jocelyn was born that I was having nightmares about a judge giving a court order to bottle feed my baby. My cousin shared with me a product that was fairly new and that she had tried when her supply dipped. I bought a bottle of pills and armed myself. I made plans with my OB to start my RX right away. She also told me that the hospital had a new policy that baby could stay with me on my chest while they finished my c-section. I was overjoyed! Surely this would be the key! But she had breathing problems and only got to stay with me for 1 minute before she had to be taken away. I was devastated. 5 hours later, she was finally back in my room, only to be taken 5 minute later due to an AB/O blood incompatibility. I can’t even describe how disappointed I was. My chance was lost. This was never going to work. I took my drugs and my herbs and my tea and I pumped and I nursed, and I slathered my chest with clary sage oil, all while she was in the nursery on IV. But something wonderfully perfect happened. Because she was on an IV, the doctors and nurses weren’t badgering me about how much she was eating and so I didn’t feel stressed! Brian and I made the decision to start giving her a bit of formula to help her through her severe jaundice. We weren’t forced into it by medical staff. My milk took a few days, but it came in strong and had been flowing ever since! (well, it did dip in volume once, but I started my herb pills again for a few weeks and it perked right back up.) It has been the most joyful experience, nursing my baby for 15 months so far.
    It only took my body 4 babies to finally figure it out. I know that you did everything. And I will stand with you and punch anyone in the face who tries to imply otherwise. Because I know the pain and heartache.
    (If you are ever interested in the new pills I used with Jocelyn, I’d be happy to send you the half bottle I have left over.)

  5. Kate April 30, 2014 at 9:10 pm #

    Kelly,
    You are an amazing woman, and amazing mother, an amazing wife, an amazing person. Nothing can stop that. While I cannot relate to this exact issue, we dealt with infertility which brought out a lot of similar grief. Penny is SO lucky to have you as a mom.

  6. Brooke May 1, 2014 at 6:16 am #

    Thank you for sharing! I struggled a lot with my first, and it was devastating when I gave her formula. I also felt betrayed and that my body had failed. Now…she is almost 5…I still mourn the breastfeeding relationship that I didn’t get to fully have with her. I know things now…I know that my body did not fail. I know that every smidge of breastmilk that a baby gets is a gift. I know that I was not fully aware of all of my options, and not aware of the help I could have received, and I know that it is not my fault. I also know that my daughter is thriving, smart, creative, and absolutely perfect, and that my thoughts and feelings about her birth and infant feedings are completely MY issue, not hers.

    http://www.littlewondersdoula.com/2013/08/what-happens-when-you-dont-have-the-right-kind-of-support/

    Being a mother is so hard…but not in the ways you expect it to be hard. And there really is not way you can know this before you become one. You cannot possibly understand or prepare for it unless you had done it before.

    You are doing an amazing job Kelly!!!

  7. alloallo May 1, 2014 at 10:39 am #

    I relate to so so much of this, trying so hard to feed my own Penelope (& twin brother) and failing so miserably. Similar combinations of trouble latching, not enough milk, sleepy, lost too much weight etc. However sounds like you’re still doing a lot better than we did! I gave up trying to latch them on around 8 weeks and only pumped until 12, I wasn’t producing enough for how much they were starting to eat. They’re now nearly a year and I think I’ve stopped beating myself up about it but I don’t know if I’ll always carry a bit of sadness with me. Still, reading Fearless Formula Feeder helps – as does hearing others stories! And truly, seeing how completely healthy they are (FAR fewer colds than many of the breastfed babies I know) and how bonded we are makes me question why I was so completely freaked out by that at the start.

    • Kelly May 1, 2014 at 11:51 am #

      Fearless Formula Feeder is a GREAT resource!

  8. Kari May 4, 2014 at 5:39 am #

    Im writing to you from England. Originally looked at your post for body revolution results, lol. But read this and just wanted to reach into the computer screen and give you a massive hug!! Im a student midwife and one aspect I’ve taken a huge interest in is infant feeding, and the one thing I always do first is watch the mothers wellbeing. Its a shame how much pressure are put on mothers to breastfeed, all this promotion ‘breast is best’, when its not if it makes mothers feel like their failing. Any feeding is best….a happy, healthy, guilt free mum is best. And the perseverance you’ve shown is extraordinary! The fact you have tried and tried makes you an exceptional mother, regardless of how you feed your baby.

    What’s important is your wellbeing, and I just needed to let you know how amazing you’re being. And if you feel the need to formula feed there is no shame! I was bottle fed and I like to think I turned out okay lol. Best of luck! x

  9. Danielle Kempe May 7, 2014 at 12:08 pm #

    Hi Kelly,

    I agree with David. You’re a wonderful Mom and you shouldn’t take it so personally that you had trouble breast feeding.

    A lot of women don’t even have the option to try and their kids turn out fine.

    You are feeding you daughter and that is what matters. Formula is OK and does NOT make you less of a Mom.

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